Last Saturday, I attended the monthly DSSW meeting and enjoyed listening to the presentation on using sign language with our children that have Down syndrome. The speakers were Speech Language Pathologist, Jennifer Kordonowy, and Ashley Golick, a graduate student in SLP.
The topics they covered were: what is total communication, why should we use sign language with our kids, what are the main benefits of signing to hearing children, how to get started, and tips for success.
One thing that really caught my attention when they discussed total communication, was a diagram that showed the many ways we, as typical adults, communicate.
We talk face to face
We talk over the phone
We use gestures to relay messages
We mail letters
We leave sticky notes for each other
They said, "Imagine if I told you that you could only use one of those means to communicate and you were not allowed to use any other. Say I said, 'okay, from now on anything you want to communicate to anyone has to be done via texting.' How long could you stand to communicate only through texting before you got frustrated? How do you think our speech delayed children feel when we say 'Use your words! I can't give you what you want unless you use your words!'"
I don't know about you, but that would drive me batty! It just makes sense to try to offer our kids as many means to express themselves as we can.
The five main benefits to signing with our kids that they covered are:
1. Signs help children develop verbal speech.
2. Signs empower children to initiate conversation.
3. Signs reduce frustration.
4. Signs provide a strong foundation for early literacy.
5. Signs stimulate intellectual development.
They suggested starting when your child is at least 6-8 months old, but noted that it is helpful at any age. First signs should be signs that are functional in your child's daily life. Always say the word while you sign. Give your child time to learn, repetition is the key to success. They made the point that what is important is to give the child the input of the signs more so than worrying about the child's output. Just as it takes time for a child to learn how to stand and walk, requiring thousands of attempts at pulling to stand, balancing, shifting weight, etc. it takes just as many times of seeing and hearing signs and words to communicate back to us.
While most of the information presented wasn't new to me, since we started signing with Sean when he was 10 months old, I felt it was a good reinforcement of what I had learned in our experiences. I remember how I felt when we started signing to Sean, I wondered, "will this work? Will he understand and be able to do this?" We started with the signs for milk, eat and more. We had a hard time remembering to use them every time we said one of those words at first, so I would say our consistency was pretty variable. At times I'd get frustrated and think. "this is silly. He isn't going to do it." Finally, at 17 months old, Sean signed back to us.
Once he figured out how powerful his ability to communicate was, he rapidly started adding signs to his vocabulary. We learned along with him, teaching him signs that he was interested in and signs that we found helpful. We built a bridge between us, giving him a voice beyond pointing and yelling. As he grew older, we've watched him add the spoken words to his signs. Some of his words are unclear to us, so he made up signs to help us understand him. It always amazes me how clever he is when he creates his own signs, the details he picks up on and uses.
At age 4 1/2, he is using many means of communicating. Some verbal, some signed, sometimes he points to picture cards we have, sometimes he just says, "Come on!" and grabs a hand and pulls you to what he wants. He still cries in frustration when we don't understand what he wants. He still does some pointing and lots of babbling. But using sign language has been a great tool for him. I can't imagine not having it as part of our language with him these past few years.